Days after Alabama’s government passed a near-total ban on abortion, President Donald Trump and other prominent Republican lawmakers are staking out their more lenient positions on the issue.
Saturday night Trump sent out a series of tweets explaining his stance on reproductive rights while warning that Republicans will suffer if the party cannot get on the same page.
“I am strongly Pro-Life, with the three exceptions — Rape, Incest and protecting the Life of the mother — the same position taken by Ronald Reagan,” he wrote. “We must stick together and Win for Life in 2020. If we are foolish and do not stay UNITED as one, all of our hard fought gains for Life can, and will, rapidly disappear!”
Alabama’s ban, which was signed into law by the state’s governor Wednesday, features only one of the three exceptions the president favors: It only allows for abortions if the pregnant person’s life is at risk, and has no exceptions for cases of rape or incest.
On Sunday, Republican Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Tom Cotton of Arkansas signaled they also have concerns about Alabama’s law.
In an interview on CNN’s State of the Union, Romney said he doesn’t support the Alabama law because, like the president, he believes in exceptions for rape, incest, and situations in which the pregnant woman’s life is in danger. He criticized both overly strict anti-abortion laws and very permissive abortion laws as “extreme,” arguing, “I think something much more toward the center makes a lot more sense.”
On NBC’s Meet the Press, Cotton echoed Trump and Romney. When host Chuck Todd asked the senator why he believes in these exceptions given he has been clear he believes life begins at conception, Cotton replied, “Because we live in a democratic society, I recognize not everyone shares my views.”
The remarks by Trump, Romney, and Cotton reflect an emerging trend among Republican leaders. Earlier in the week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky also expressed support for the three exceptions. “He opposes abortion except in the instance of rape, incest, or the life of the mother in is danger,” his spokesman Doug Andres said.
And House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy took the same position. “I believe in exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother, and that’s what I’ve voted on,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California said.
And Alabama’s Republican senator, Richard Shelby, said he takes issue with his state’s new law. “I’m not down there,” he said of the ban, and echoed his colleagues in their support for exceptions to a total ban.
As Republican controlled states such as Alabama and Georgia have passed restrictive abortion legislation, Republicans in Washington have worked to make it clear that while they are, on the whole, anti-abortion, they nevertheless are aligned with the 77 percent of Americans (according to a 2018 Gallup poll) who believe in abortion access in the three cases outlined by Trump.
Alabama’s lawmakers may not just be out of sync with Washington, but with Alabamians
As Vox’s Jane Coaston reported earlier this week, many anti-abortion conservatives believe Alabama’s law may end up hurting the anti-abortion movement:
The decision by top Republicans to diverge sharply from their colleagues in Alabama further illustrates the concern that hardline attempts at overturning Roe v. Wade could cause lasting damage to both to the number of congressional seats held by the party and to the anti-abortion movement in general. Polling suggests Republicans have reason to be concerned.
Alabama is a conservative state, but polling from 2018 suggests locals — even supporters of the state’s governor and evangelicals — aren’t supportive of the law their state just passed. As Vox’s Rachel Withers reported, “according to the 2018 statewide poll, conducted by Anzalone Liszt Grove Research on behalf of Planned Parenthood, only 31 percent of Alabamians were in favor of an abortion ban that lacks a rape/incest exception.”
Opposition to the rape and incest exception only garners minority support even among deeply conservative Republicans. According to the poll, among Alabama Republicans, 60 percent of evangelicals said there should be a rape or incest exception, and 61 percent of people who voted for Kay Ivey — the governor of Alabama who signed the bill into law — said the same.
According to the poll, 65 percent of Alabamians support at least limited abortion, with a plurality stating they believe abortion should be legal in cases of rape, incest, or if the life of the woman is in danger.
That’s exactly the position that Trump, Romney, and Cotton have taken this weekend.
It is possible that opinions have changed in Alabama after this law has passed — in a polarized political system, voters often adjust their positions in response to cues from their party. Consider, for example, how Trump’s rhetoric and policies toward Russia in the first year of his presidency helped flip partisan attitudes toward Moscow. “Donald Trump’s victory has, single-handedly, transformed the way Americans see Russia,” Vox’s Zack Beauchamp reported in 2017. “Republicans are more friendly to Vladimir Putin’s regime, and Democrats more hostile, than at any point in Pew’s decade-plus of polling.”
More polling in Alabama in the future should give us a better sense of how citizens are reacting to both state-level and national politicians’ position-taking on abortion.
Abortion extremism could hurt Republicans come Election Day
Trump’s call for Republican unity on the issue of abortion is a reminder that on the national level, taking an extreme position could be a strategic catastrophe.
Republicans have signaled they are comfortable outlining exactly where they stand in relation to the law in Alabama as well as to new laws in Ohio, Kentucky, Georgia, and Mississippi that ban abortions when a fetal heartbeat is detected (some of these laws also offer no exceptions for rape and incest).
By speaking out very clearly in favor of exceptions for rape, incest, and safety now, Trump and other Republicans could be working to shore up support among moderate Republicans. During the 2018 midterms, enough moderate Republicans defected from the party, some over the GOP’s dogged attempt at repealing Obamacare, that the party lost control of the House of Representatives as well as some Senate races.
Backlash against Republicans could hurt them at the congressional level in competitive districts, hurting GOP chances of retaking House seats lost to Democrats and perhaps even threatening the party’s seat count in the Senate.
For instance, Sen. Doug Jones, a Democrat, won a special election to represent Alabama in the Senate in 2018; he is up for reelection in 2020, and Republicans would obviously like to see one of their own in his seat. If Alabamians hold the same views they expressed in 2018 on exemptions to a total abortion ban, and the party’s nominee to challenge him supports the total abortion law, that could prove to be a liability. In that race, abortion could become a wedge issue for Republicans instead of a straightforward issue that easily unites the base.
Overall, access to abortion in the cases the president listed remains popular with Americans—according to a 2018 Gallup poll, rape and incest exceptions are widely supported by the American public, with 77 percent of Americans believing abortions should be legal in the first trimester in those cases.
That popularity is long-standing. As Vox’s Anna North reported, historically abortion opponents have seen the rape and incest exceptions as “politically untouchable … largely because they’re so popular with voters.” As more states weigh abortion laws, and as the 2020 election cycle moves into full swing, time will tell if voters still view those exceptions as untouchable, and whether those in favor of restricting those exceptions are punished at the ballot box.